The U.S. women's national team lines up prior to play against Costa Rica during their friendly match at Sahlen's Stadium on September 1, 2012 in Rochester, New York.
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Face paint, lines forming hours before gates open, high-pitched screaming and traveling fans – the scene at Sahlen’s Stadium on Friday and Saturday could have passed as a hit pop concert.
Instead, it was the start of a different kind of tour, the U.S. women’s soccer team’s Fan Tribute Tour. Rochester, home of star forward Abby Wambach, hosted the first game of what will be a 10-game gold-medal tour following a third consecutive Olympic triumph for Team USA.
The tour kicked off in style as Team USA cruised to an 8-0 victory over a young Costa Rica team in front of a sold-out stadium of 13,208 fans. Like any good tour, there was a little drama, too. U.S. coach Pia Sundhage – the tour’s lead singer, so to speak – announced hours prior to the game that she will be stepping down as Team USA head coach. Sundhage will take over as the coach of Sweden, her home country, on Dec. 1. Sundhage will coach her last two games for the United States, both against Australia, on Sept. 16 in Carson, Calif., and Sept. 19 in Commerce City, Colo.
Still, she took the time to say ‘thank you’ to the crowd by singing to them (a rendition of “If Not for You,” written by Bob Dylan and made famous by Olivia Newton-John). Sundhage sings at any opportunity she gets, saying it’s easier for her since English is not her native tongue. When Sundhage was hired as the U.S. coach back in 2007, she famously sang another Dylan tune, “The Times They Are A Changin’ ” at one of her first meetings with the team.
Despite the news of Sundhage’s departure, the show must go on and it did on Saturday as fans lined the streets hours before game time. They did the same thing Friday, too, when they witnessed the dedication of the walkway into Sahlen’s Stadium’s main gate, which has now been named, “Wambach Way.”
“We would have traveled wherever to find them,” said Pam Armstrong, who came to Rochester from Syracuse with her daughter, Maddie. “We are just really, really lucky that they are in our backyard. It’s an opportunity for these girls. It’s like getting tickets to the biggest rock concert of the decade, to be able to come and see these girls.”
The scenes were very similar to what Rochester looked like last year, when three days after losing to Japan in the FIFA 2011 Women’s World Cup final, Team USA’s Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Christie Rampone, Becky Sauerbrunn and Wambach (and a visiting team’s Ali Krieger) helped bring out 15,404 fans for a Women’s Professional Soccer homecoming at Sahlen’s Stadium.
Rochester proved even more soccer mad this time around. And unlike last year, there was a gold medal to celebrate.
“Last summer it went from zero to a million,” Team USA midfielder Megan Rapinoe said of the buzz surrounding the team. “And I think it went from a million to even more than that this summer. It’s been pretty cool to be able to keep riding that wave from the World Cup, but now kind of backs it up. And we actually won this year. I think this victory tour is going to be awesome.”
Wambach agreed, giving credit as usual to her hometown fans.
“I couldn’t be more proud to have Rochester be my hometown, and this be the first game of our victory tour, and it be the way it just was,” Wambach said after scoring twice in victory Saturday. “It was electric. People were interested the entire game, no matter what the score line said.”
Wambach received standing ovations throughout the weekend, first at the public training session Friday and again Saturday before the game and when she was taken out of the match in the 72nd minute.
Morgan, who plays forward alongside Wambach, has become an adopted Rochesterian after playing at Sahlen’s Stadium for the Western New York Flash in 2011 and leading the team to a championship. Morgan is one of Team USA’s most adored players and the face of the team nationwide, but she also recognizes that Rochester is Wambach’s town.
“It was such a good reception coming to Rochester,” Morgan said. “Everyone here loves Abby Wambach, and Abby is everyone’s hero. I’m so happy we got to come to Rochester. She’s done so much for the team over the past 10 years – however many years. She is such a leader for us and the country, so it’s great to see a full, sold-out crowd here, cheering us on.”
With all due respect to Rochester, the fandom likely would have taken place anywhere Team USA chose to play. The U.S. women’s soccer team just won its third-straight Olympic gold medal in dramatic fashion. A 4-3 victory over semifinal Canada in extra time proved to be one of the most thrilling soccer matches to date and, coupled with the gold medal match victory over Japan, only further fueled that passion that ignited during the 2011 World Cup.
Now Team USA has nine more stops on the tour to soak in all the support. In addition to the two games this month against Australia, U.S. Soccer also announced two matches against Germany – an Oct. 20 game at Toyota Park in suburban Chicago and another game Oct. 23 Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. Times and ticket information have not been announced.